The Lie between the Truth

Submitted by Jessica Trippe

Fiction by definition is a lie, but according to guest speaker Marilyn Johnston the key to success comes in “sandwiching that lie between two truths.” In her presentation, “Giving Your Novel Its Best Start – and Its Best Shot,” she discussed how to reach readers who are seeking both escape and relatability. The short answer is to create meaning.

img_7762atableReaders ultimately turn the page to see how the character solves a problem. Johnston, who writes under the pen name cj petterson, stated that a common mistake for writers is filling the first page with too many details. Instead, she recommends opening with some action. “The character reveals themselves. You don’t have to put in a lot of backstory. It will come out in what they say and do.”

In any work, it is essential that a character remains true to who they are. However, keeping those details straight after months spent working on a project can be challenging for an author. Johnston revealed that she maintains a cheat sheet for each of her characters, recording their traits and personal history as she writes.

Before concluding with an informative Q&A session, Marilyn offered the following advice:

  • Take advantage of conferences that offer a chance for editors to read sample pages or a sample chapter of an author’s work. Though most of these do charge a reading fee, it can be well worth the cost to have some professional, outside advice. “You know how you stand in someone else’s eyes,” she stated.
  • Study Screenwriting. Johnston recommends: “The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller,” by John Truby and Robert McKee’s “Story.”
  • Understand the current genre conventions. Plots commonly found in “love stories” might be turned down if submitted to “romance” editors. Similarly, techniques that were commonly accepted in the past such as “head hopping” or switching points of view are not as welcomed in today’s market.
  • Begin at the beginning. It sounds intuitive enough, but Marilyn pointed out that an author may not know where the story begins until they have written much of the novel. At that point, it may be necessary to take out entire chapters that no longer seem relevant to the arc, something Johnston refers to as “killing your darlings.” Though it may be tough for the writer who has put much effort into those pages, it will ultimately make the book stronger.

Your manuscript may not be ready if:

  • It’s too long. Many readers today are looking for shorter works. No matter how much time an author has spent refining their novel, if it is too long, agents and editors will be likely to pass. Even for those planning to self-publish it would be wise to take into account the attention span of today’s readers.
  • The writer hasn’t read it out loud. Johnston noted that since so much of writing takes place in the authors’ mind, it is easy to leave out or repeat a word. These errors more easily stand out when the work is read aloud.
  • It is the first draft. Even legendary writers admit that the first version needs a lot of work.

To learn more about Marilyn’s novels and other projects, visit her blog